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Warden Of The North

Again and again photographers report about their journeys to the polar regions and that they either didn’t get to see any polar bears at all or only so-called binocular bears, i.e. polar bears several kilometers away that you can’t see with the bare eye. I also felt the same way when I was on a ship in Svalbard last year in April and then in Churchill Manitoba in November. I have already made two trips in search of “my portrait” of a polar bear. It’s not easy to get re-motivated to make another attempt when previous experiences have been so incredibly poor and conditions seemingly impossible to change. If I had been “only” dissatisfied with “my personal results” of a portrait, it would be easier. But the experience of many days searching for polar bears being completely fruitless is frustrating. 

I came across Roie Galitz, a super experienced wildlife photographer who organizes professional expeditions to places all over the world and also to the polar regions for many years. In a very small group I set off again to Svalbard, but this time we didn’t move around on a ponderous ship where the guides can only scan the coasts looking for polar bears – we covered almost 1,000 kilometers in 6 days on snowmobiles in the interior of this huge group of islands – our Behind-The-Scenes clip gives an insight into this.

Experiencing this unique nature, which has been untouched for thousands of years, with glaciers over a thousand meters high and weather changes possible every hour, flashed me like I could never have imagined before. About 350 of these largest and most dangerous land predators live in Spitsbergen in a total area twice the size of Belgium – the thought alone, magical and indescribably fascinating.

Our two Arctic guides are full professionals who are normally on assignment for BBC and Disney productions.

The weather was mostly perfect and with Willem at my side, who accompanied me not only mentally but also with the camera for our documentation of the trip, I therefore had the best conditions for my project. And indeed, we found polar bears every day and were able to spend time with them, sometimes for many hours.

The danger: A polar bear stops at nothing, it attacks everything and everyone, without exception and always with the aim to eat. When a polar bear picks up a scent of prey several miles away, it makes a run for it. Some even specialize in hunting and preying on reindeer.

So we had to keep a safe distance of several hundred meters. The first few days it was hard to keep myself motivated and focused – while the rest of the group was celebrating just finding the animals in the first place, I was dissatisfied with the seeming impossibility of being able to take “my portrait” with eye contact.

One afternoon we spotted a beautiful, majestically moving adult male polar bear, brimming with self-confidence, wandering the 40km-long and completely frozen Dickson Fjord. This was my moment. The guide in charge decided to make a single attempt with me: sitting alone on a sled, hitched to his scooter, we drove closer. The rest of the group stayed at a safe distance, with the 2nd guide also armed. I got off the sled and lay flat on my stomach. The closer he got, the more he slightly changed course. The mighty hunter had spotted a breathing hole of a seal, which on the one hand relaxed me a bit, because I had a little longer to lie down – at the same time I was worried that I wouldn’t get direct eye contact with him anymore. Now only about 50 meters separated us. Camera on the ground, fingers almost frozen from the cold, I was almost bursting with tension when I saw through the viewfinder how he briefly took me in his sights once again before he reached his focused target, a hole of about 50cm in the ice. With his look he made it unmistakably clear to me that I would have been an easy prey. You are the guardian of the north! Thank you – for this indescribable moment!